Comedian Frank Ferrante returns to the red velvet tent in Teatro ZinZanni’s upcoming all-new show, A Rosa de Rio – The Rose of Rio, opening October 23 and playing through February 15, 2009. We caught up with Frank recently to learn about the creation of his loveable, memorable character, Chef Caesar whom Frank describes as “a poor man’s Ricky Ricardo with a hint of Dean Martin in his spirit.”
What keeps you coming back to Teatro ZinZanni?
I could make the obvious joke…like…”the pay check.” But the truth of the matter is that there are very few outlets for stage comedians to develop their comedy, their sensibility. For the past seven years I have been blessed with a home that allows for experimentation and growth. Early on…those first two years…were all about shaping characters, developing text, constantly cuttting whole routines then replacing them at the next performance. Dropping characters, landing on one that resonates. And most importantly learning how to work an audience without completely offending everyone. Offending some is fine in my book…but not all. A guy has got to eat after all. But that audience work is key and ultimately it is the improvisation with the audience and the band that not only marks the act but has now become the act.
How did Caesar come to life?
I sat down with TZ director Stefan Haves and we discussed in 2001 various types of characters that would work in the tent. I’ve always wanted to play an over the top character, bombastic type who deep down was just completely covering all of his many flaws. In fact, he sometimes flaunts his flaws. There are little things in the cracks of Caesar’s moments at TZ – perhaps he drinks a bit too much, womanizes too much, gambles…there may be other illicit activity. Caesar desperately needs to be loved. But don’t get too close…he could bite. Or better yet…donkey kick you, crack on egg on your head, express disdain regarding the tassels on your shoes or the t-shirt you chose to wear in our fancy tent. I thought of wanna-be performers, lounge act types, desperate souls. A poor man’s Ricky Ricardo with a hint of Dean Martin in his spirit. I remember sketching the character before anything – the pencil mustache, mole, big hair, sideburns, the lounge suit…and showing Stefan and designer Beaver Bauer what I thought he looked like. The name is borrowed from actor Cesar Romero. All right, it’s stolen from Cesar Romero!
When you engage with audience members, what do you do to make them feel as comfortable as possible?
You get good after a while recognizing who will play with you and who won’t. Though you never know how any of it will play out. It’s dangerous. The audience senses the danger and risk involved. Stefan taught me a valuable lesson early on. If you are going to tease or insult them in any way, you have to counter with a compliment. Even a backhanded one. Pretty much I can get away with murder with an audience member as long as somewhere during my interaction with them I say, “You’re a beautiful man/woman” or cajole the audience to concur with my assertion that the victim/audience member is “Gorgeous!” I will say that it is never my intention to hurt or draw blood…there is a side of Caesar that is sweet and gentle. I always choose an older woman to be part of the act as Caesar’s “first love.” And I am extremely careful not to offend but still have fun. I carefully gauge the reaction of all my participants. You watch their eyes, their body language, expressions. The bottom line is that you want them to have fun so the audience will have fun.
What do you look for when you choose an member of the audience to play with? (no trade secrets!)
I like a variety of types. When I have three guys onstage it should look like the United Nations. Different backgrounds, looks, sizes. Enough disparity to allow me to distinguish each exchange. With the ladies…give me young, middle aged and older. Caesar doesn’t discriminate. I track the audience to see who is laughing, enjoying the show prior to my entrances. Also, if someone looks particularly interesting, I may speak to them in advance to get a handle regarding their personality, mental clarity, mobility, willingness, etc.
The new show is called “A Rosa de Rio: The Rose of Rio” and the story, as we understand it so far – we’ll see what happens in rehearsals! – has you smitten by one of the wait staff in your restaurant, a lovely young Brazilian singer, whom you elevate to the role of cabaret singer. It seems like we will get to know more about Caesar the man versus Caesar the “Arugula Guy.” Can you tell us how that feels?
The more I’ve nuanced Caesar over the years in terms of his look, verbal and physical tics, point of view, etc, the more I’ve wanted to show his “at home” side. What the hell does Caesar do behind closed doors, after the show, on a date? What are his hobbies, pet peeves? How does he treat his mommy? Boxers or briefs? In this version I believe we’ll see more of Caesar the lover with a sentimental touch. He’ll croon a duet with Paula Gelly’s character as they re-live their romance of yesterday – including their ritual involving martini time at sunset.
In addition to your roles with Teatro ZinZanni, you have been successfully performing your one-man show about Groucho Marx all over the country, including some recent engagements in Washington State. What keeps you connected to Groucho?
I fell in love with Groucho Marx when I was 9. I’ve played his life onstage from age 15 to 85 in “Groucho: A Life in Revue” in New York, London and on PBS. I still tour with “An Evening With Groucho” regularly. It is said “comedians are truth tellers.” And Groucho was the greatest truth teller. He holds up the mirror to our behavior – our twisted, staid, predictable, absurd behavior. As a kid I knew he was breaking the rules – saying and doing what he wanted and that was exhilarating for a good boy who did all the correct things…but who was aching to bust out. What an alter ego for shy kids everywhere. I try to do the same with Caesar. Make fun of and take down everyone and everything.
What other projects are in the wind.? We know your lovely wife is a playwright. Do you ever collaborate with her on new material?
My wife Amanda and I have worked together maybe 15, 20 times over the past 14 years. We’ve acted onstage, I’ve directed her, she’s directed me. I read her work and at times edit it. She watches my performances and offers constructive criticism and always encourages. We are mutual fans. And through it all…always will be. For me…I would like to continue with my one-man Groucho show, work at Zinzanni…and take Caesar to another medium. Caesar needs to be on television…the next Uncle Milty.
Our Artistic Director Norm Langill has called TZ “summer camp for performers” and he takes pride in the collaborations with the creative team and the performers that result in keeping the show new and invigorating. Can you comment on this process?
One of the thrills of working at ZinZanni is that you get to know the players. It has become a bit of a repertory company from the onstage performers, musicians, designers, production crew, producers, front of house. One of Norm’s most telling strengths is his ability to listen. And he has to hear a lot from all of us! But he listens and is open to experimentation, changes. I appreciate that he allows the creativity to flow. He facilitates that process. I’ve rarely if ever felt that he was ready to censor or edit me or my work. People talk about the law of attraction. Norm has created bizarrely wonderful world that attracts a certain breed. I’m proud to be included and grateful.
How do you stay in shape? What’s your regular routine for keeping agile? Are you a trained dancer?
Prior to each performance I do about 15 -20 minutes of light yoga-like stretching. A little vocalizing. After almost 25 years of this, your endurance, stamina are there – physically and mentally. I’ve got iron lungs in the Merman tradition! And I’m relentless…I’m of the ‘never say die’ school of performance. I play each performance as if it’s my last…as if I’m going to have a stroke in the middle of the night and croak. Seriously. I take it seriously. I try to stay completely in the moment in that center ring. Laughter is a big deal to me.